At the onslaught of the pandemic, educational institutions were thrown into a tailspin. With just a few days’ notice, schools were shuttered to fend off the spread of the virus. Suddenly distance learning took over as the primary method of educating millions of students around the world. Many schools had just begun to dip their toes into distance learning and equipping students with laptops and mobile devices. There have been countless stories of the heroic efforts of educators who worked long hours to ensure students were able to continue their education. As schools prepare to resume over the coming weeks, either in-person or virtually, and businesses continue to work remotely, it is a good time to review what makes distance learning effective and how to address some of its challenges.
Distance learning can be a self-paced, individual program or it can be live and instructor-led. For the latter, instructors need to use a different teaching style than what they are accustomed to using for in-person instruction. Because they aren’t in the same room with students, it requires more effort to encourage participation. An instructor wouldn’t let a student doze off or not participate in an in-person class, so the same rules apply for distance learning.
Engagement is one of the largest barriers to successful distance learning programs. Keeping students interested and actively participating requires using different instructional techniques, such as using varying types of the media. Sessions that include a mix of lecture, video, small group discussion and collaboration help keep students interacting with each other and the instructor. Being on video with students allows instructors to call on them individually and make eye contact like they would in-person. Video also allows instructors to direct questions to specific students, lead meaningful conversations and bring students into discussions. Posting Google docs for students and leaving them to learn on their own is much less effective than leading a live, instructor-led session that supports two-way interaction.
Gamification is another way to encourage participation in learning programs. Variations of game mechanics have been used in the education industry since the 1980s. Whether it’s a spirit of competition, conquering levels, earning certification, virtual badges, prizes or anything in between, gamification provides many different forms of motivation that can increase student engagement with learning and contribute to knowledge retention.
Just as with in-person classroom teaching, there is no one-size-fits-all for distance learning. Whether participants are high school students or employees at a large corporation, everyone is at a different point in their learning journey. For distance learning, offering advising hours for those who have questions or need further guidance can encourage student success. These individual touchpoints allow instructors to overcome any barriers students may have to learning the material. Virtual breakout groups are also effective in reaching students in a smaller setting, allowing instructors to address their specific learning needs.
Encouraging communication is another key to effective distance learning. Students should have an opportunity to ask questions and interact with instructors and fellow students before, during and after learning sessions. They should also be asked to provide feedback after the class is complete. These insights are important in continually enhancing and improving learning programs.
Distance learning can be an effective way to educate students and train employees, but it takes practice on the part of instructors and consistent efforts to encourage engagement. It also requires effort on the part of students to take an active role in learning and a commitment to participate. The good news is there are steps both instructors and students can take to make the experience positive and enlightening. We will only get better with distance learning as it is used more and more in our current environment.
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